Colin Ward – Everyday Anarchist

I once described Colin Ward to a friend as “an anarchist who builds adventure playgrounds” which seems as good point a starting point as any for talking about his life and ideas (she replied “he’s my new favourite person”). Ward was a self-educated anarchist polymath who spent most of his life working in planning, architecture and social policy. This might seem to be in contradiction with anarchism ,if one thinks of anarchy as solely guys in black hoods breaking Starbucks windows, but perhaps anarchism is a little richer than this? An anarchist perspective allowed Ward to arrive at any number of novel solutions to social problems, some of which I will touch on briefly below. The point about “adventure playgrounds here” is also telling – one to the reasons I am attracted to his work is his ability to place children and their needs for fun, stimulation and exploration of their environments at its centre. Children are often seem as a peripeheral annoyances in urban life, if they’re not outright demonsied. Any vision of social life that puts them back at its centre is worth exploring.

Colin Ward

Ward was born into a Labour family in Wanstead, Essex. He left school at 15 and went to work in an architect’s office, and was conscripted in 1942 at the age of 18. It was a move to Glasgow via the army that radicalised Ward, exposing him as it did to Glasgow’s tradition of political oratory and its anarchist thinkers. An early visit to Glasgow anarchist Frank Leech, who was on a hunger strike in Barlinnie Prison, was noted by the army authorities, and thereafter Ward was posted to the Orkneys. He commented: “There is an irony here. My suspected unreliability kept me safe for the rest of the war, while many other conscipts of my generation died in forgotten, meaningless battles in South East Asia”.

In later life, he also worked as an architect, Education Officer and a Professor of Housing and Social Policy, before becoming a full-time writer. He was also editor of the Anarchist newspaper Freedom from 1947 ’til 1960 as well as editing the journal Anarchy from 1961 to 1970.

One of the reasons I like Ward so much is his simple everyday vision of anarchism. In his book Anarchy in Action, he points out that every society uses a variety of different modes of organisation to fulfill the needs of its citizens. In a communist society, a black market may meet the need of the citizens for luxury goods. In a free market society such as our own, the provision of medical care may be socialised (maybe not for much longer, but still). Anarchism is similarly available as a mode of thinking and organisation and is already present in many (the best?) of our social relations. It’s a way of organising that rests on mutual aid and co-operative social help, rather than authority or profit. In Remembering Colin Ward (a collection of short eulogies published for Ward’s funeral), his friend Stuart White states that giving directions when asked might be seen as an anarchist act. It’s given freely, not sold, recieved freely, and the intention is to help -it’s  mutual aid arising from our natural sociability. Our everyday life is clearly full of small gestures like this, but on a slightly grander scale, these acts of mutual aid and co-operation are everywhere.

As well as small gestures of neighbourliness and support, we find them in more complex forms or organisation – fanzines, Wikipedia, 12-step societies grappling with addiction, the Royal National Lifeboat Institute, even the Very Good + Xmas Swap (an online music trade than I’m involved in)! All are spaces that people enter into on a voluntary basis, for the purposes of solving a problem, meeting a need or just enjoying creativity for its own sale. They exist freely within that space, co-operating as equals until that problem is solved or they wish to withdraw. There are thousands of such spaces that permate society – anarchism, from Ward’s point of view, is partially just recognising that this occurs. He states that this basic attitude is present everywhere, like “a seed beneath the snow”. Even writing this blog can be seen as anarchist action in this sense. I’m writing out of choice, not profit, and this writing will, I hope, be read, shared, linked and networked freely.

Ward argues further that these spaces tend to throw up novel and interesting solutions as they are operating outside the market’s constraints (a kind of inverse of the logic that “the market will solves all problems”). If this is true, he says, then why not try and extend these spaces? It may seem absurd to assume that some of society’s more complex institutions could function in this way, but I don’t think absurdity is automatically grounds for dismissal. It’s similarly absurd that so much of our social energy goes to the enrichment of such a tiny minority.   Anarchist solutions seem no more or less mad to me than many other current ways of organising. Ward doesn’t present a fully realised “vision” of an anarchist society (thankfully) but his works on social history and policy are brilliant. His anarchist perspective causes him to look into phenomena others would ignore and he draws conclusions others might shy away from.  I usually find his conclusions informative, surprising and inspired.

I mentioned above that I’d take a brief look at some of Ward’s works, so I’m going to take a closer look at two of his books: Cotters and Squatters and The Child in the City.


Cotters And Squatters (Five Leaves, 2002)

Cover of Cotters & Squatters

Cotters and Squatters: Housing’s Hidden History is a look at how throughout English history, those without money and property rights  have attempted to house themselves – “squatting” is not a modern phenomena. It centres on a folk myth that anyone who can erect a house overnight wins the right to the land. As Ward shows the realities of this fariytale  aren’t that benign – forced evictions and demolitions are scattered throughout the pages – but this myth reflects a desire amongst everyday people to take control over their own housing – an anarchist solution, with all the strengths and limitations that implies.

The front cover features a quote from Gerald Winstanely:  “England is not a free people, till the poor that have no land, have a free allowance to dig and labour the commons”. Winstanley was the founder of The Diggers, who dug over and reasserted control over land seized in the Enclosures.  We find this assertive spirit throughout the book. It features chapters on those forced to dwell in cave dwellers, inhabitant of the royal forests and a variety of others. Ward also shows how centres of industry benefited from settlements of squatter cottages, providing a source of labour. This isn’t a romanticised view of the rural past  – it’s quite clear that some of these people lived in conditions of appalling poverty. However, Ward also shows how settlements and housing quality can improve over time, if people are given the space and autonomy to do so. In an interview he states “although they might have started with crude materials like corrugated iron, these sheds and shanties were eventually upgraded. That’s what can happen when people are allowed some measure of control over their own lives”.

It should add that this book is a deep excavations of social history, containing a lot of original research.Each of the short chapters in this first book contains 20 to 30 references, and substantial quotes which take you into the heart of the subjects discussed. We’re in the throes of a housing crisis at the moment – for anyone interested in an alternative take on the history of housing in the UK, this is an essential read. To get a sense of what anarchist thinking might look like in the knotty, problematic real world, you could do no better.

The Child in the City (The Architectural Press, 1978 ; Bedford Square Press, 1990)

cover of Child in the City

(nb. this edition is obviously neither of the ones cited above – I just liked the photo!)

Ward’s The Child in the City is perhaps his most famous text. It’s an amazing book. Its range is such that is hard to summarise in a simple paragraph. This is one thing I love about his books, they are so damn erudite! It’s packed with facts, statistics, citations and lengthy quotes.. It is structured into 20 short chapters with subjects ranging from “How the child sees the city” and “Play as protest and exploration” through to “Traffic and the child” and “At School in the Alien City’. As can be seen from this sampling, the book gives s a pretty full account of what a child might encounter growing up in the city. In fact, it’s so wide-ranging, that it doesn’t have one simple point or message, except perhaps urging us to be attentive and curious about children’s experience.

He begins with a critique of the idea of the child, and points to the historically constructed nature of childhood. He quotes Margaret Mead: “It’s a good thing to think about the child as long as you remember the child doesn’t exist. Only children exist. Every time we lump then together we lose something”. He also shows how recent our concern for childhood as such is, pointing out that the child usually exists and is studied in the context of the family. He moves on to look at our idealised images of childhood, the myth of paradise lost. Here, he asks how much of our reaction to change is simply nostalgia, false remembering or have something genuinely been lost – with regard to the city, have children lost a degree of a freedom? He presents a wide range of biographical remembrances, which suggests that this is the case, but he has a keen consciousness of how we idealise the past and our own childhoods.

This book isn’t specifically an anarchist text, but it can be read as one. In Chapter 2 (“The Happy Habitat Revisited”), in response to a quotation by Albert E. Parr, Ward says, with ironic outrage:

Imagine his effrontery in suggesting that the function of the city, might be the promotion not merely of business, not solely of entertainment, not even of public safety, but of happiness.

The placement of human happiness first, over the demands of other interests, is a challenge to power, and is therefore implicitly anarchist. Parr further states:

“[our] most basic demand for the environment is that it must offer a sufficiently rich, fine-grained, enduring and varied diversity of forms and colours to offer satisfactory stimulus fields for all of it’s inhabitants.”

A fine set of intentions, given the often monotonous and unconsidered nature of the urban environment, and clearly a great environment for a child to play and grow in.

The idea of play figures large in the book. Anarchists often talk about play, ludism, as a contrast to the world of work and authority. Well, here it is, in the real world. This is what play looks like. Ward frames children’s play and use of the city as what it fundamentally is – a war with adults over the use of space. He quotes extensively from compliers of children’s games, Iona & Peter Opie, who mention children playing all kinds of games – ball games, hide and seek, games of chasing and capture. 20 different variants are uncovered of games which involve crossing the road. I love the creativity shown here. These games are also a way of exploring and achieving a degree of control over the environment – Ward discusses have different groups of children’s ball games give them a sense of an environment’s architecture.

Some of these games have an anti-social edge (i.e. tying together opposing door knockers, stealing loads of doormats and piling them in front of a single flat, riding the roofs of lifts – still creative, though!) Again, in light of recent moral panics, reading this reminds me makes me young people’s anti-social behaviour is nothing new. We just frame it differently now. It’s now read as a sign of the breakdown of social order and an occasion for panic, rather than annoyance or laughter. The title of this chapter, “Play as Protest and Exploration” illustrates Ward’s attitude here. One of my earliest interest was subway graffiti as pioneerd by young people in New York in the 1970s. I wonder what Ward would have made of this creative use of urban space?

Other chapters detail work for the child in the city (the libratory potential of a paper round!), schooling, suburbia (mid-point between the field and the shops), the urban experience of girls, amongst a mass of other subjects. Every chapter is a condensed mini-essay in it’s own right, stuffed with citations and a fascinating range of information. He followed this with another book The Child in the Country, about the experience of rural children.

Reading this book now, one can’t help but reflect on the way that young people are demonised and excluded. Since the book was first published, there has been a decline in outdoor play in this country, alongside several moral panics demonising young people. I wish Ward was still with us, as I feel he would be intimately concerned with these battles.





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